10.22pm - Cunning Linguist
Trip Start Apr 01, 2011
8Trip End Ongoing
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Did you know that there are more Africans in Bahia than anywhere else outside Africa? (Did you know also that there are more Hawaiians in Las Vegas than in Hawaii and more Jews in New York than there are in Israel? These last have nothing to do with anything, but those three facts run together in my head.) The result is that Salvador has a mix of Afro-Brazilian culture that makes locals rather different to their brothers and sisters in the south. But that's not to say that they don’t fully embrace both sides of their heritage; indeed, they say that if you are a tourist, you go to Carnaval in Rio. If you are a local, you come here, to Salvador. Unfortunately, I just missed Carnaval this year, but since one of my dearest friends, Joanna, is a samba dancer, I’ve had a taste of the shimmy experience with her (albeit in not quite the same bulk as in Brazil).
So my time in Brazil is almost at an end, and although I have enjoyed it, I am ready to get to a place where they speak Spanish and I can make myself somewhat understood. I’m sure it seems like I’m a bit obsessed with language, but it’s kind of ever present in my mind. In my opinion, there are four levels of foreign language knowledge:
This is what I had in Asia. Every time I switched countries, I would learn the words for "Hello", “Yes”, “No”, “Thank you” and “A beer, please”. Believe it or not, with these five phrases, indicating numbers with fingers, and a big grin, you can stumble through most situations. I can’t remember most of them them now, and sometimes “Hello” would get swapped for “Excuse me” or “Sorry” (I used sumimasen far more than konnichiwa in Japan, for example), but since most people along the Banana Pancake Trail speak transactional English (we’ll come to that in a moment), my stilted efforts at using some words of Lao or Thai or Korean, along with the aforementioned big grin, resulted in no end of goodwill from the locals. And if all that fails, never underestimate the power of a low cut top.
When Colin and I were in the Silk Market in Beijing, he was amazed that the girl selling us a coat was also dealing with a Russian customer at the same time, and therefore clearly spoke at the very least, Mandarin, English and Russian (all languages which are famously easy to learn, natch). I pointed out that she probably couldn’t go to a Russian person’s house for dinner and keep up her end of conversation, but she would have the words for colours, clothing items, prices and sizes all instantly, because those would be the words she used every day. Her Russian was transactional, just like her English.
I believe this is the first step towards actually speaking another language. The other stuff is easy – I went from speaking zero Spanish beyond “si” to transactional within twenty hours. But to actually have a conversation, to go not into complex ideas but certainly to make small talk for more than two minutes, and for the words to feel natural as you say them, that is when you are really getting to grips with the thing. Maybe you still have to resort to your native tongue sometimes, maybe you have to ask for words every few minutes, and remembering every verb form for past and future tenses is probably still a bit advanced, but you can make yourself understood and maybe even crack a few jokes. My goal is to be here by the time I leave Latin America, but it’s hard – I get shy around people that I know speak more fluently than me, and become convinced that they’re rolling their eyes and thinking how thick I am. Inevitably, I lapse back into English. Not really ideal.
The best thing about going to Argentina will be that I will be hearing Spanish every day, so even if I can’t always find the right response, I have no doubt that within a few weeks I’ll be able to understand a lot more than I can right now. The last time I was in France, I was translating French to English quite happily for my friend Hollie when we went to a market, but going back the other way was more difficult and involved a lot more hand gestures.
The other thing I’m excited about is that I’m meeting my friends Sasha and Alex in Buenos Aires in a couple of days. We haven’t seen each other since the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan, and I had no idea they were even in South America until some photos from Chile popped up on Facebook. Last I heard, they were working on a farm in New Zealand, so it was most exciting to see that our paths would cross again on another continent. You are constantly meeting people on the road, but it’s rare to find folks you really enjoy spending time with, so this should be good. And after Sasha’s past language successes (bellowing “TUK-TUK??” at some nonplussed Laotians after several buckets in Vang Vieng), I can’t wait to see her in a land where no-one speaks English.